Facing dropping enrollment and a $5 million deficit, the state university in Moorhead says it may cut or eliminate programs in more than half of its departments, mostly affecting the liberal arts.

Last week, officials at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, notified chairs of 18 of its 31 departments that they could face significant cutbacks in fields such as philosophy, mass communications, history, political science, theater arts and English.

“This doesn’t mean we’re closing those departments,” President Edna Szymanski said. “What we’re looking at is some closures of programs that have very few students.”

Since 2010, student enrollment has plunged 11 percent, she said, and that’s forcing the campus to make changes. It could lead to layoffs in some departments by 2015, she said, unless enough employees take voluntary buyouts.

The plans, which have been under discussion at the campus for months, have fed into a growing angst about the future of liberal arts.

On Tuesday, the online journal Slate put Moorhead’s plans in the national spotlight with a column headlined: “A ghost town with a quad. Is that the future of the American university?”

It warned that students “best get in your Romeo and Juliet now …” because schools like Moorhead may soon “have no department of English, physics or history …”

The author, Rebecca Schuman, accused the university of trying to eliminate departments so they could get rid of tenured faculty, who otherwise would have job protection.

At Moorhead, officials bristled at the coverage, calling it inaccurate and unfair.

Even faculty leaders say the administrators have been working closely with them to ensure that faculty members’ rights are protected. “This is not entirely us against them,” said Theodore Gracyk, a philosophy professor and head of the faculty union.

At the same time, he noted that his own department, philosophy, is on the list of 18 targeted departments. “I’m in the liberal arts,” he said, and those fields are clearly on the defensive across the country, especially at publicly funded universities.

“What we’re seeing at Moorhead is not unique to Moorhead,” he said. “We’re just the first ones out of the gate.”

Szymanski said school officials took a hard look at which programs had shrinking enrollments and concluded that some have more faculty members than they need.

They divided the university’s 31 departments into three color-coded groups:

• The green zone (the least vulnerable programs): criminal justice, social work, chemistry, biosciences and teaching.

• The yellow zone (could face some reductions): psychology, anthropology, economics, women’s and gender studies, mathematics, business, nursing, and health and physical education.

• The red zone (most vulnerable): American multicultural studies, computer science, counseling, communication studies, philosophy, speech, mass communications, music, physics, cinema arts, history, paralegal, political science, theater arts, English, construction management and language and cultures.

On Dec. 5, administrators are scheduled to lay out the proposed cuts in some detail, Szymanski said. The university also plans to offer its second round of voluntary buyouts in coming weeks. In the first round in October, 19 faculty and two staff members accepted. The president said they saved about $2.5 million.

If there aren’t enough volunteers this time — she’s hoping for about 20 — some in the faculty may get layoff notices, which won’t take effect until 2015.

Students, she said, “are voting with their feet in terms of what majors they’re taking. I believe universities have to be responsive to the students. That, to me, is my guiding principle.”

Gracyk, however, fears that as students migrate away from the liberal arts, they’ll miss the programs that can teach many skills they’ll need in the workplace, such as writing, collaboration and critical thinking.

“We’re like the green vegetables on the plate,” Gracyk said. “Yeah, we may not be the most attractive thing, but down the road you may be sorry you didn’t have it in your diet.”